Politics: March 2009 Archives

Maria von Maltzan

accepted no imitations

It's her birthday.

Maria Helene Françoise Izabel Gräfin von Maltzan, Freiin zu Wartenberg und Penzlin, was born on her wealthy family's Silesian estate, Schloss Militsch, north of Breslau on March 25, 1909. She died in Berlin's Kreuzberg district in 1997, after a very long and very rich life as a rebel, and one of the righteous - among all nations and for all people.

I first came across her heroic story in some incredible segments which peppered an excellent book I read last year, "The Fall of Berlin", by Anthony Read and David Fisher. I must have been impressed, because I noted the date of her birth in my pocket calendar and later transferred the information when I bought one for 2009. It probably helped that I realized that this year would be her 100th anniversary.

Von Maltzan's rebellion first became a public one with a decision, uncharacteristic for a girl in her society, to study biology, botany and anthropology. The righteousness was probably always there, but when she completed her doctorate in the natural sciences in the fateful year 1933 she almost immediately began her involvement in what was only the first of many underground anti-Nazi resistance movements to follow. She was very young, a part of a Bohemian circle in Munich, but she soon began illegally smuggling information out of the country.

Her lack of enthusiasm for the new regime alone would have been enough to trash a chance for any appointment with a scientific or academic institution, and none was to follow - ever. Von Maltzan began what would become a long career of what the world's conventionally-successful would call underemployments. She survived on money earned as a translator, a free-lance journalist and a lecturer. She also cared for horses and worked as a stunt rider for Bavaria Film. When she moved to Berlin in 1935 she worked in publishing, later as a postal verifier and then with the German Red Cross assistance service.

During the war she completed studies in veterinary medicine, all the while carrying messages and leading refugees through the sewers of Berlin toward freedom, falsifying papers, sheltering Jews and other fugitives (both in her own apartment and elsewhere), and personally assisting many of them in fleeing the country, whether, as in "Action Swedish Furniture", inside crates marked "Schwedenmöbe" or personally conducting some across the Bodensee (Lake Constance) to safety in Switzerland. In the midst of her underground activities she managed to remain close to both the conservative Kreisau Circle and the Communists.

During the last months of the war, inside a Berlin now leveled by allied bombs, Maltzan continued to help both refugees and deserters, and she organized a private soup kitchen for abandoned forced foreign laborers in the back court of her apartment house in Wilmersdorf.

I'm leaving out the story of three marriages (two to the man she hid from the Gestapo inside her couch for years) and the death of a child. But there was much more. Most of the heavy personal cost of von Maltzan's heroic exertions and incredible acts of courage were performed within a world whose restraints and terrors we can hardly imagine. We also won't ever know the full nature and extent of what she suffered both before and after 1945.

After the war, her family members dead or scattered, and her home now inside Poland, she managed to found a veterinary practice, working first for the Soviet occupiers and after that for the British. But she later lost her license because of a drug dependency and her need for psychiatric care.

She slowly regained her personal and professional independence, first traveling with a circus, later working in the Berlin Zoo, always caring for animals. She also managed to get employment as a substitute for vacationing veterinarians.

She eventually settled near the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin and opened a thriving veterinary practice which was patronized by both pet-owning celebrities and their equivalents in the red-light district. In 1981 she moved to Berlin-Kreuzberg, bringing her practice with her. She treated the animals brought to her by the punks in her neighborhood for free. While outwardly she might appear harsh and ill-tempered, inside she was a pushover for the victim, the vulnerable and the downtrodden. She readily chose to defend the relatively powerless individuals and multitudes who were crowded into her district, foreigners or outsiders of all kinds, from corporations, police and politicians. She told an interviewer:

I'm quite engaged in social things now because this part of Berlin is a perfect slum. They don't like me to say it. I really stand up for this part of Berlin, Kreuzberg. They've shoved everybody into this area - Turks, colored people, Poles, everyone stuck into this corner! We have houses with eight flats on one floor with one w.c. on the staircase. The police, you can't imagine how brutal they are down here, beating. If I see it - because you can see I have big corner windows with a clear view - I go down and get hold of the police and say, "Why are you beating these people?" And the silly police say to me, "Perhaps you like colored here!" "Well, " I say, "I prefer them to helmets!"

In 1987 she was awarded the title "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem. In this undated video interview conducted in her [killer] apartment von Maltzan says:

Because my mother was unjust I have a very high feeling of justice. That's the real matter of the whole thing. That's why I'm furious with Israel; they wanted to give me a eucalyptus tree, and I could get a medal pricked to my breast! Such things I don't really care for.

And they said to me they wanted to make a big kickup for me in Bonn, but the letter inviting me for this arrived the day after the attack on Sidon [she mentioned rockets and red phosphorus]. I wrote back saying that all my life I've tried to be for the peaceful co-existence of all people, of all colors and all regligions, and I don't see that Israel has anything to do with these my ideas, and so I don't think I want a medal from you. I didn't go.

Maria von Maltzan died November 12, 1997, in Berlin. She had published her memoirs, "Schlage die Trommel und fürchte dich nicht", a little over ten years earlier, but they have not yet been translated into English.

NOTE: There is a more extensive citation in the German Wikipedia, from which I've taken most of my account here.

[image from gayblock]

Republic Windows employees celebrate getting everything they asked for, after sit-in

taking over the factory

After writing up my report of what was said by others at last Thursday's panel at the X Initiative I asked myself what I thought about the question implied in the program's title: "After the Deluge?; Perspectives on Challenging Times in the Art World". I've decided to continue the discussion I had with myself in this space.

As far as the economy is concerned, I think things are going to get pretty crazy out there, and they may perhaps stay pretty crazy for a long time. In spite of the optimism coming from Washington and in much of the press in the last few days, I still think we're sliding into another great depression. I'd say they've really broken it this time. I'm especially concerned because I'm not hearing anyone who is supposedly in charge really admit it.

If the U.S. population is a little more than 300 million and the total amount of the so-called bailouts and capital infusions remains no more than the estimate of $9.9 trillion published in an article in the Times two months ago (which now may seem a very optimistic assumption), those numbers equate to more than $32,000. for every single American. And yet it may not do the trick. The country, and the whole world, might still collapse into chaos.

Under both best- and the worst-case scenarios, there will be changes in the way we all live.

But let's put aside the doomsday bugbear; it seems there's something else going on, and this phenomenon just might turn out to be a good thing. People are not just worse off than they were one year ago, or perhaps eight or even thirty years ago, as we're now learning. People are mad; they're *really* mad; and it's not just about the AIG bonuses. It's about the selfishness, the greed, the arrogance and the pure stupidity of those who have been given those bonuses, as well as all the other financial tycoons, and their fellow-traveling politicians too. They have together created the disaster which is taking from people their jobs, their savings and their hopes, while mortgaging their future and that of their children with the trillions of dollars stuffed into the pockets of those same tycoons and politicians, in transactions which remain opaque today.

For what it's worth, we can be sure this debacle won't look anything like the last one. When things like wars and depressions come back, when historical things are repeated, they actually never do "come back", and they really never are "repeated". World War II looked nothing like its almost-equally infamous namesake. We can also be sure that Great Depression II will end up looking nothing like the first one, which seemed to have defined the 20th century almost as much as totalitarianism, genocide and industrial progress.

One thing we do know is that nothing was ever quite the same both during and after the Great Depression. I think there's a good chance that nothing will survive the current crisis in the same form in which it existed just one year ago, including the current arrangements within the art world. I have no predictions about galleries or other institutions, but the relationship between the artist, the gallery and the public may be altered. It's probably safe to assume that while some will certainly survive and eventually flourish once again, any space which today we think of as on the leading edge will almost certainly be supplanted in that role by others not yet in business, and the old edge will become the middle ground.

But assuming we don't end up tearing each other apart over scraps of food, maybe we can look forward to "interesting times" as for artists and the people who love them and what they do. I've assembled a far-from-exhaustive list of developments which I think we're likely to see just ahead of us, if not already. It does not include trends which would seem to be unrelated to the economic depression, like digital experimentation. Also, most are not entirely new concepts or developments, and some of them are already here.

Every artist will finally get a website, including those who have held out because of some idea of principle, and those who have depended on their galleries.
There will be more virtual art, meaning both online work and projects.
We will see an growing trend toward the adoption of "open source, open content and open distribution" (pace Eyebeam).
There will be more interactive work.
Individual artists and groups of artists will be showing work in their studios, art both by themselves and by others.
Artists will organize shows themselves in vacant buildings and storefronts, even if private and public institutions fail to do so.
Some businesses, large and small, will find it useful and rewarding to cooperate with artists in a symbiotic relationship.
A distressed economy will encourage the recognition of the folly, and even counterproductive consequences, of camera prohibitions.
We can expect to see a greater popular documentation of the visual arts, where it doesn't interfere with its appreciation by others.
We will see more street art and more street performance, both in more inspired forms than ever.
We are sure to see more work that reflects the growing populism abroad in the land today.
And consequently, we will see more socially and politically provocative work (actually, that may be mostly wishful thinking).
But this new art will be subversive (no, I mean really subversive), even if it's not "Political".
There will be work which would have been unrecognizable as art, by most people, until now.
And certainly there will be art created in totally new mediums.
But, because of reduced budgets, we can still expect more works on paper and more work using found materials.
Governments and citizens will finally grant artists a status withheld from them until now, recognition as a full and worthy part of society in every way.

It all sounds good to me, but the best thing I've heard or read describing the positive things which lie ahead for artists even in our reduced economic circumstances was a piece Holland Cotter wrote for the Times, published February 12, "The Boom Is Over. Long Live the Art!":

At the same time, if the example of past crises holds true, artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction. They can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again.

Now if we can all just get through this no-money thing and crawl out the other side in one piece.

[image by E. Jason Wambsgans from the Times via Chicago Tribune and AP]

Federico Solmi's "crucifix" [my punctuation], related to his 2008 hand-drawn animation video, "The Evil Empire", a satirical look at the outrageous exploits of a fictive pope, and a part of his "ongoing desire to satirize tyrants" [as quoted in both ARTINFO and ArtNet].

I suppose this artist's work may look to some like heady stuff, but only if you're Catholic, unwholesomely deferential toward superstition, or just dysfunctionally prudish.

The object shown at the top is a little provocative, but it's also very beautiful, and I think his red knob is cute. Still, Solmi's crucifix, while being shown at Bologna's Arte Fiera this past January, so aroused local judge Bruno Giangiacomo (Judge for the Preliminary Investigation (Giudice per le Indagini Preliminari or G.I.P) who appears to have only heard about it second hand, that he had the Carabinieri seize it from the booth occupied by Naples' Not Gallery and the artist charged with, essentially, blasphemy ("il vilipendio di cose destinate al culto"/"contempt for an article of worship") and obscenity ("l’esposizione di oggetti osceni"/"the display of obscene objects"). The crucifix had already been sold to a collector, and Solmi first heard about the charges after he had returned to his home in New York. The blasphemy count was later dropped, when someone realized that the statute had been rendered null by a constitutional court in 2000.

No, sadly, this wasn't a publicity stunt, but when I was first told about the confiscation and the charges I did think that someone was pulling my leg. Actually I was almost stupefied, since the great city where this occurred has the reputation here of being Italy's most politically and socially radical. The artist's own home town and the capital of Emilia-Romagna, Bologna led the country’s socialist movement early in the twentieth century, was extremely active in the revolt against the fascists in 1944, and after the war, until the last decade, the city consistently voted for communist governments. I had assumed its fiery, secular, non-conformist political history would have supported an artist's right to his creation, however provocative. Now it's up to the lawyers to decide how much liberty is too much liberty.

drawing used in Solmi's "Evil Empire" video

Our own art fairs last week didn't produce anything like this kind of excitement. It almost makes me nostalgic for Rudy Giuliani's imbecilic tantrum over the Brooklyn Museum show, "Sensation", ten years ago. Just kidding; maybe we should think of censoring little boys and she-goats as more than enough excitement.

For more information see these ArtNet and ARTINFO articles.

[image at the top from the artist's New York gallery, LMAK Projects, via ArtNet]

Sayed_Parwiz_Kambakhsh.jpg Sayed Parwiz Kambakhsh, sentenced not for downloading porn, but for printing an internet article about Islam and women’s rights, and adding comments on the Prophet’s shortcomings on the subject

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Supreme Court in Afghanistan has upheld [in a secret decision made last month, but revealed only yesterday] a 20-year prison sentence for an Afghan university student journalist accused of blasphemy.

. . . .

The student, Parwiz Kambakhsh, 24, from northern Afghanistan, was arrested in 2007 and sentenced to death for blasphemy [following a two-minute trial; the sentence was commuted to 20 years last October] after accusations that he had written and distributed an article about the role of women in Islam [my italics]. Mr. Kambakhsh has denied having written the article and said he had downloaded it from the Internet. His family and lawyers say he has been denied a fair trial.

This story in today's Times headlines only one of an increasing number of incidents within "occupied" Afghanistan, including murder and imprisonment, which reflect appalling threats to personal freedoms, especially those affecting women, and the ordinary functions of the media, even within the capital itself. The threats come from the Taliban, Islamists, the traditional conservative patriarchy, and even from official government, political and less extreme religious circles.

Can someone tell me again why we're in Afghanistan?

It's been seven and a half years since we invaded that country and sharia* is still, literally, the law of the land. This place is on the other side of the world, but its where our new President wants to introduce a larger American armed presence than that which we have already installed there, and that mindless military solution looks like it's about to become the model for our next overseas adventure, the occupation of one of our allies, Pakistan (whose government has already handed over a good part of its own territory to the Taliban and sharia law) in our continuing "war against terrorism". In the beginning it was all about Bush, but in the end it's just going to be Obama and the ghost of LBJ.

Occupying these countries will not make them do what we want them to do, and who doesn't already know that?

Looking to the west, all the way across Iran to Iraq, we also learned today that the courageous reporter and patriot who insulted Bush fifteen months ago in Baghdad by throwing two shoes at the visiting American commander/comqueror has been sentenced to three years in prison. I would say he's lucky he wasn't shot on the spot, executed, "disappeared", or given 20 years, but this is no way to treat political protest, even in an "Islamic, democratic, federal parliamentary republic" assembled by clueless occupiers. Bush himself, no enemy of secret trials or torture, responded, after ducking the shoes, "that's what people do in a free society, draw attention to themselves". Zaidi could be heard screaming outside the room.

One more thought to ponder: Take a look at a map of the Middle East and imagine what you would think about these developments, and the other political and military arrangements an aggressive U.S. empire has made with countries in the area if you were responsible for the security of the proud and ancient people of Iran.

feeling surrounded

Unless you have a very strong stomach, don't search Google images "sharia". (I made the mistake of going there because I was hoping to find a generic picture of the subject to illustrate this entry.)

[first image from Getty Images; second from the New York Times]

he's not just preaching to the choir

Billy's the real thing.

Reverend Billy of the Church of Not Shopping is more than a performer and a performance. His, its, their dedicated and vocal supporters are only one center of a contemporary activist, grass-roots movement for economic justice, environmental protection, and anti-militarism, but their performances and meetings have typically been among the most entertaining and joyful manifestations of a growing movement which may be about to come into its own, even if it may not yet be in sight of the promised land.

Bill Talen (Reverend Billy is the stage name he's used for years) wants to be mayor. Let me go on record right now by saying I'd vote for him at the drop of a hat, and that's what I saw happen today at noon in Union Square. Since the good Reverend himself is never seen in anything resembling a hat (his thick theatrical comb-back "do" probably supplies enough warmth), if I'm going to resurrect another hoary expression to describe what I saw, I'll have to emphasize that Talen threw his hat into the ring only metaphorically, when he declared his very serious candidacy for the office of Mayor of the City of New York on the Green Party Ticket.

If you've heard him speak you know Billy's a master with metaphor, but you may not know that he's a master at gently but firmly cutting through the cant, stupidity and obfuscation which passes for political discussion in New York. He's quick on his feet in front of both large and small crowds, but he reveals an awesome, genuinely-sincere mind - and heart - in the very smallest groups, or in one-on-one conversation.

He's an impressive speaker and an impressive candidate. If only he were able to appear in front of voters and speak to them as I've heard him talk, both in and, at least as importantly, out of his theatrical character, I believe he'd be a shoe-in for the office (another clothing metaphor, but we do know Billy wears shoes). They'll come to smile and to laugh, but the message he delivers is serious, and it now has more meaning for more New Yorkers than ever before.

In the midst of an economic disaster Billy can no longer be dismissed as a voice crying aloud in the wilderness, but of course for many of us he never was.

He's not going to be quiet, and as the candidate of an established party he can't be ignored.

When the choir had finished and he was done speaking, Talen walked down the steps from the rostra (where he stood at a white-painted wooden church "pulpit" constructed for an earlier "Church" action) to take questions from the press assembled below it. He was asked what he thought about the difficulty in beating the incumbent, Michael Bloomberg (the richest man in Gotham, who literally bought the office - twice - and is willing to do so again) "Bloomberg? I don't think he'll win; he's running against democracy; it's Mike vs. democracy, and democracy will win. It actually is that simple and clear to lots of New Yorkers". Asked if he himself represented democracy, he answered generously: "There are a number of very worthy candidates," adding, "we have to respect the people of New York", alluding at least partly to the voters' decision to impose and uphold term limits recently scrapped by the Mayor and City Council.

The new Green Party nominee pointed to the historic focus of his political activism up until now, New York's 500 real neighborhoods*, as the new political reality with which he will be working, and which he said should and would replace that of the paternalistic and undemocratic system of failed corporations, insolvent banks and ruined developers. "The key is in the neighborhoods, [even if] for some neighborhoods it's too late." Reminding us of one the Church of Not Shopping's battles, that focused on the multiplication of the big chains and the disappearance of local businesses, the Reverend seemed to be warning Bloomberg and the beneficiaries of his largesse, "We all now know what the monoculture is, and we know to oppose it."

From the candidate's letter to New Yorkers which appears on the campaign web site:

The 500 neighborhoods of New York, if they are healthy, are protecting our families and jobs. Local economies anchored by independent shops and public spaces are not as sexy to this administration as luxury boxes, corporate jets and the like, but really the greatness of this city is in its neighborhoods.

This would all sound like only an utopian dream if we weren't already experiencing the beginnings, within the country as a whole, of virtually a revolution in public attitudes and government programs proposed, and even an alteration in the political system itself, all being driven by circumstances, the internet, and Barack Obama's emergence originally as candidate and now as President.

ADDENDUM: Video documentation of the scene in Union Square yesterday:

Billy's oration
Billy and the press
Bill of Rights chorale

Billy says he and the members actually got together to try counting, and stopped at 500.

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